On March 20, 1535, the first currency reform in Russia was held, giving birth to Russia’s smallest coin, the kopeck, the first all-Russia currency. The reform was carried out by Princess Elena Glinskaya, mother of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible.
Since the Tsar was underage at the time, she ruled the country as his warden and implemented a number of very successful reforms until she was poisoned, allegedly by one of the contending aristocracy clans.
The urgency for this reform was called for by the increasing chaos in the country’s currency system. Before, many minting centres scattered all over the country issued currency that varied greatly in size and exterior. There was no fixed exchange rate. To make things worse, due to no security features, whole pieces of silver from the original coins were cut off, or, in the process of production, cheaper metals were blended into the alloy. The coins lost their value, which inevitably led to unhealthy commodity-money relations. The currency crisis reached such levels that “coin artists” were sentenced to death.
The reform unified the exterior and the weight of the coin. Lighter and cheaper coins were exchanged for the new ones at a fixed exchange rate to keep the new currency solid and reliable. However, the archaeologists still find secret stashes of old coins dating as far back as the 1530s. People were still suspicious of the new currency and didn’t get rid of their old savings in an attempt to secure their future.
The kopeck got its name from the word “spear” (“kopyo” in Russian), as Elena Glinskaya’s currency had the image of George the Victorious, piercing the serpent with a spear, engraved on it. Some sources argue that coins depicted the sovereign in power at the time the coins were minted.
The kopeck later survived a number of currency reforms. In 1704, under Peter the Great, the decimal system was introduced in Russia, equaling the kopeck to 1/100 of one ruble. To make them easily recognised by everyone, its value was written in words for the literate population and drawn as a combination of stripes and dots for illiterate people.
Inflation affected the value of the kopeck over the years. In its early days in the 16th century, three kopecks were worth a good country house, while in the mid-20th century one kopeck was only good to buy a pencil or a glass of soda pop.
Today there is talk about the complete elimination of the 1 and 10 kopeck coins, since they are practically no longer used, and their actual cost of production is about 18 times higher than their nominal value.